The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These last few years have been tough on everyone, and many of us hope for brighter days ahead in 2023. We've all suffered in one way or another from COVID (which seems better, but it's definitely appears to be here to stay). St. Paul's in particular had an especially tough 2021-2022 because of Hurricane Ida. I'm sure you've found yourself growing weary of the ugly the cultural divides that continue to wound our nation. Not to mention the economic hardship many face because of higher prices on life's basics, unusual supply chain issues, and worker shortages.
As we prepare to enter a new year surely there has to be better things on the horizon. Will there be something to hope for in 2023?
While planning for this Sunday's services I came across a hymn I've never heard before. It's hymn #250 in the Hymnal 1982 (you can hear a version of it here), and it's specifically designated for New Year's Day. It's called "Now greet the swiftly changing year," and it features the compelling refrain, "Rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace."
"Another year of grace." I wonder: do you feel like the year gone past has been "a year of grace"? If 2022 is what grace looks like, are you excited to invite another new year of it?
"Rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace."
Despite all of these issues, I actually feel a lot of hopefulness about the next year. Don't get me wrong, I get down sometimes. I, nevertheless, find in my faith resources that help me remain hopeful even while things appear to be falling apart. There are at least 3 ways I have seen God's grace at work that I'd like to share with you.
1. Grace isn't simply a silver lining . . . it's transformation
This might sound really "Pollyanna-ish," but I don't mean to imply sticking to the sunny side of the street. What I mean is that God has a tendency to bring good out of bad. Think of the most important stories of our faith. As we celebrate Christmas we do so with a lot of joy because we know that it means the gift of Jesus. When you really think about it, though, this meant a lot of hardship for Mary, Joseph, and their families as well. An unplanned pregnancy under difficult-to-believe circumstances? Not all of this felt joyful, I'm sure. Think of the Easter story of Jesus' death and resurrection. We celebrate with joy the resurrection, but it doesn't erase the pain that came before it. In fact, this is illustrated powerfully by Jesus' nail-scarred hands. His pain was real. His death was real. But through God's grace those wounds were transformed.
If anyone asked me if I'd like to go through the process again of repairing the church and school after a hurricane the answer would be an emphatic NO. It was stressful in ways I don't even want to think about again. At the same time, nevertheless, we came out on the other end of it with a $6 million complete renovation of our entire campus that we accomplished in just over a year. That, I am very happy about, and I'm proud of the work so many people did to make it happen. That has undoubtedly been the silver lining of this whole experience, but really more than that. It's been an utterly transformational process, both for the institution, and for me personally. It's a grace that I welcome and give thanks to God for, even though I wouldn't do it again for . . . well, $6 million.
2. Grace isn't just a quick fix . . . it's slow, steady growth
One of the hardest things I ever experienced in my life was the death of my parents when I was 20. Especially since I lost them within a 9 month period. Those are years that, at the time, I could see absolutely no grace in. None. In fact, it took me a long time to talk to other people about the experience. I didn't even want to talk to God about it, must less to "rejoice" or "give thanks." It took a lot of time. It was several years before I was able finally to admit I needed therapy, and I grew from those sessions. It was still several more years before I darkened the door of a church again. When I did, I was ready to receive what God had to offer. From that my faith grew, and eventually led me to a call to ministry. During my seminary training I spent a summer as a hospice chaplain. I found that my experience of losing my parents helped me to sit patiently and comfortably with the dying and their families.
To go from a grief so profound that I didn't know which way was up, to being able to be a source of strength and comfort for others in those circumstances . . . that's true growth. I can't think of anything else to call it except the grace of God. I believe it is through God's grace that I've experienced slow and steady growth in my life, and an ability to help others find hope in tragic circumstances.
3. Grace isn't a consolation prize . . . it's love's gift
When talking about this topic of grace it can sound a little like I'm saying that God made X happen so Y could occur. In the words of Paul, "By no means!" Grace isn't given by God as a consolation prize for God making something terrible happen in your life. God does not kill parents, send hurricanes, or cause economic collapse, any more than God wanted Jesus to die on the cross. Despite what some will say, God did not send Jesus to die. God sent Jesus that we might follow him. Instead, we killed him. But God would not let that stand. God said, "Give me your worst, and I'll show you my best." Grace is God's unmerited favor towards us. Grace is simply love's gift that brings growth and transformation, and God can do this with any raw material we provide. As a wise priest once said, "God can make chicken salad out of chicken . . ." well, you know. Grace isn't God saying, "Aw, sorry for the rough time. Here's a consolation prize." No, it's simply God's work and nature to create and transform like a great artist who can make something beautiful even out of the worst materials imaginable.
Is there hope?
Would I prefer God didn't let any of this stuff happen? Yes. Yes, I would. Do I often ask, "Why???" Yes, yes I do. Would I rather there was no Hurricane Ida, and that I could still celebrate Christmas with my parents? ABSOLUTELY. At the same time, when I look back over my life, and circumstances I've encountered, I would not change them. I've made many mistakes over the course of my life, but I do not regret them. Through God's grace I've found growth and transformation out of all of it.
The fourth verse of that newly discovered hymn says,
"With such a Lord to lead our way in hazard and prosperity, what need we fear in earth or space in this new year of grace?"
This is why I can feel hope for what's ahead. What I know is that no matter what difficulties arise in the coming year, that God is in it with me. The Christmas story affirms Jesus' title of Emmanuel: "God with us." I am confident that God will walk with you and me through whatever circumstances arise, and that God's grace will be actively working with us to bring transformation through those circumstances. I notice that the refrain of the hymn doesn't say, "Rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of GREAT THINGS!" It invites us to embrace the promise of God's grace to transform, to bring growth, and to embrace us in God's loving arms.
Merry sixth day of Christmas! Keep the faith, St. Paul's.
P.S. - If you're interested, one of the best books I've ever read on the concept of grace is Gerald May's Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. Even if you do not have any experience in your life or in a family member's life with addiction I assure you this book will still prove transformative. Especially since you'll come to find we're all addicted to something.